One Year Ago Today

Today was sunny and warm, full of butterflies and bees. Hard to imagine that one year ago, it was so cold that there was ice floating in the port of Konstanz (which rarely ever happens).
At that time, I was musing about Katya, who knows to read the ice, and her brother Grischa, who has a special sense for wind and weather, both setting out from nineteenth-century Russia to make their fortune in the world.
One year later, while spring is settling in, a bit more each day, the outline I wrote in those freezing days is about to become the first volume of their saga.

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Child of Saint Valentine’s

I was born on the Feast of Saint Valentine, patron saint of lovers, affianced couples and of happy marriages.
I would laugh about it, if it was not so bitter.
Valentine of Terni died a martyr’s death that day, because he defied the orders of Emperor Claudius by marrying lovers in the name of the Lord, presenting them with flowers from his own garden.
I should have known that in the end, cruelty always triumphs over any romantic sentiment. Love is nothing but a fairytale that never comes true.

Lucrezia in «The Colors of Memory»

Born 473 years ago today: Lucrezia de’ Medici, often called Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, to distinguish her from her great-grandmother Lucrezia di Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Agnolo Bronzino, Lucrezia de’ Medici, ca. 1560
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Always in the shadows of her glorious parents, her handsome, gifted and confident siblings, Lucrezia was shy and oversensitive. After the death of her older sister Maria, betrothed to Alfonso d’Este, soon to be Duke of Ferrara, it was Lucrezia who became Duchess of Ferrara instead, suffering from Alfonso’s indifference towards her.

Her unhappy life ended at sixteen, when she succumbed to a mysterious illness, giving rise to the rumor that she had been poisoned to enable a remarriage of Alfonso who was in desperate need of a legitimate heir for his dukedom. A legend immortalized by Robert Browning in his poem «My Last Duchess» – and the background story of my contemporary novel «The Colors of Memory».

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Portrait in Green

She is the centerpiece of The Colors of Memory: the lady in green.

The Renaissance portrait in the Städel Museum of Frankfurt is the starting point of Gemma’s search for clues. The common thread that runs through the whole storyline, linking the different periods of time: Lucrezia at the court of Ferrara. Victorian literary couple Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Sylvia and Clifford in the 1980s and Gemma and Sisley today, in 2017.

The lady in green
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the other lady in (olive) green, the Mona Lisa, our lady in green is not world famous. No icon, frequently copied and adapted. Not the most thoroughly examined and most described work of art, with thousands of visitors queueing up in front of her every day.

It is her enigmatic smile that casts a spell, we are told. The masterful hand of da Vinci and last but not least the question who the portrayed woman was.

This is a question the Mona Lisa shares with our lady in green.

Who was she? A noble Venetian woman? Giulia Gonzaga, the mistress of Cardinal Ippolito de’Medici? A lady from Siena, a member of the Spannocchi family? A woman called Maddalena, maybe, as the image on the cameo necklace can be interpreted as a miniature portrait of Maria Magdalena?

We don’t know. And neither do we know who painted this portrait. The fashion depicted in the painting, its technique, composition and details have been categorized partly as Flemish, partly as Italian school. And for every possible identification of the model, there has been at least one painter it was attributed to.

It is like the analogy of the hen and the egg: if we knew who the painter was, we might identifiy the model – and vice versa.

Our lady in green is not fully unknown, though: among my books at home, there are two historical novels for whose covers the portrait has been adapted.

Maybe these images were anchored in my subconsciousness when I came across the lady in green during my very first visit of the Städel Museum. In any case, I was irresistibly drawn to the rich palette of greens. To the constantly changing expression on her face. To the composition of the painting and its details, posing something of a mystery to me.

I sensed a story I would like to tell.

One art historian claimed the lady in green to be Renée de France, the mother of Alfonso II. d’ Este, Duke of Ferrara – but I couldn’t find any resemblance between her historically documented portraits and the lady in green. However, there was some likeness between her and Eleonora de Toledo as well as her daughter Lucrezia, the first wife of Alfonso, whose short life was overshadowed by her early death – and by the legend of having been poisoned by her husband, immortalized by Robert Browning in My Last Duchess. In addition, Bronzino, court painter of the Medici – or at least an artist from his workshop, this kind of distinction used to be fluent in those days – had also been listed as creator of the lady in green.

I had found my story.

Like a watchmaker I dissected the painting detail by detail, researching symbols and imagery in order to reassemble it within the framework of the novel. In the shape of a complex map leading Gemma and Sisley the way to the secrets of the past. Enhanced by a fictional background story rooted in historical facts and establishing a connection to Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.

Because sometimes a painting is the key to a secret.

The lady in green in the digital collection of the Städel Museum

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Sky Dragons

From time to time I have one small everyday obsession, almost always in relation to a new novel of mine.
These days I’m obsessed with watching out for clouds in the sky that look like a dragon. And sometimes I’m lucky – like Friday evening at the riverfront of the Seerhein.

Sky Dragon

The dragon is a mythological creature in many cultures of the world. In Europe, the dragon is almost always a terrifying, fire-spitting monster.
In our cultural sphere, dragons are rarely depicted as cute as Grisù, the young dragon who doesn’t want to spit fire but dreams of becoming a firefighter instead; as a child, I loved this animated television series.
More often, they resemble Katla, the dragon in Astrid Lindgren’s «The Brothers Lionheart» that used to scare the hell out of me, giving me nightmares for months.
Nevertheless I’m fascinated by the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen; I’m longing for the next volume of «The Song of Ice and Fire» and counting the weeks until season 7 of «Game of Thrones».

I’ve always had the strongest connection to Chinese dragons though: the symbol of the Emperor and of power. The deity of rain, fostering harmony and prosperity; ruler of the weather, of waterfalls, rivers and the sea – a creature of sky, air and water.
A lucky charm.

While working on my «Botanist», I dug up the small historical detail that the dragon used to be female. Just like the water in rivers and lakes and the sea, like the rain.

Until an emperor of China decided to turn the dragon and everything related into a male symbol, so that the dragon fitted into the myths he had woven around himself.

This historical fact corresponded perfectly to Lian, my sword-fighting heroine, and in one scene of the novel, this thought crosses her mind.

Dragons and ocean waves, porcelain. Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736–95). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Sky Dragon on Friday indeed proved to be the ruler of the weather, a creature of air and water, bringing wind and rain.

And next time you see clouds in the sky, you also might find a dragon there. This symbol of male power that used to be female.
This lucky charm right out of heaven.

 

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A Rage to Live: Richard Francis Burton

My fascination for Richard Francis Burton dates way back in 1990, to «Mountains of the Moon».
I was swept away by Patrick Bergin’s impersonation of Burton: his energy and passion, this adventurous, extraordinary, restless life enjoyed to the maximum in every thinkable respect.
I was hooked.

I kept on reading about Burton, and the more I read the more I desired to write a novel about him some day.
Fifteen years later, I did it, with «Beneath the Saffron Moon». Although I was only able to give a few insights into his life, his travels, his character within the novel; there would have been so much more to show, to tell.
Here are five astonishing facts about Richard Francis Burton, collected by Interesting Literature.

Five Fascinating Facts about Sir Richard Burton

Interesting trivia about the Victorian explorer
1. Sir Richard Burton was a Victorian explorer, translator, author, spy, diplomat, poet, soldier, cartographer … the list goes on.

Source: interestingliterature.com/2016/11/04/five-fascinating-facts-about-sir-richard-burton/

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The Kumquat and the Botanist

Just an ordinary February day at the ordinary (and quite small) supermarket around the corner: I come across kumquats and can’t help smiling.

For kumquats are among the fruits one had already heard of in the Western world of the nineteenth century – but «my» botanist Robert Fortune was the first to describe and categorize them during his travels in China, and he brought them with him to Europe afterwards.

They even bear his name: Fortunella.

Kumquat – Wikipedia

Kumquats (or cumquats in Australian English; UK /ˈkʌmkwɒt/;[2]US /ˈkʌmˌkwɑːt/ or /ˈkʌmkwɔːt/[3]) (Citrus japonica) are a group of small fruit-bearing trees in the flowering plant family Rutaceae. They were previously classified as forming the now historical genus Fortunella, or placed within Citrus sensu lato.

Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumquat

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The People of the Sea

When I started research for my novel «Time of the Wild Orchids» and came across the Orang Laut, the sea peoples of old Singapore, I was instantly hooked. The idea of tribes of sea nomads inhabiting the waters of the Indonesian archipelago alternately as fishermen, traders, pirates and warriors intrigued me, and I was curious about their culture, their beliefs, their way of life.

Unfortunately, the Orang Laut of Singapore abandoned their customs soon after the British had arrived, and when Europeans started to pay interest to the indigenous people of the new colony from a scientific-anthropological point of view, there wasn´t much left to study.

But they still exist, the sea nomads, on the oceans of this world, and the depiction of the Orang Laut in the novel is based on reports and studies of recent date that allow insights into an astonishing and threatened way of life.

Last of the Sea Nomads

By James Morgan // Marine nomads, the Bajau Laut, have lived in the waters of the Coral Triangle for centuries but their way of life and their uniquely intimate relationship with the ocean is being destroyed.

Source: maptia.com/jamesmorgan/stories/last-of-the-sea-nomads

 

Just as the sea has influenced and shaped Singapore throughout its history, it determines not only the way of life of the sea nomads but also their perception – as described in this interesting article on the unique vision of their children.

The ‘€˜sea-nomad’€™ children who see like dolphins

Unlike most people, the children of a Thailand tribe see with total clarity beneath the waves -€“ how do they do it, and might their talent be learned?

Source: www.bbc.com/future/story/20160229-the-sea-nomad-children-who-see-like-dolphins

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Series: The Beauty of Plants

Less than four months until my new novel The English Botanist will be hitting the shelves here in Germany. And today I’m starting a series on the blog dedicated to this novel and it topics.

Over the next few months and at irregular intervals, there will be posts about historical backgrounds and settings, impressions and inspirations – and last but not least there will be journeys into the magical world of plants.

At the beginning, there is a coffee-table book I recently discovered on the web – Plant: Exploring the Botanical World (Phaidon, 2016).

For thousands of years, humans have documented the beauty of plants in numerous ways, always new, always different – and by this, they created art. Plant presents a sample of this creative work in different cultures and different eras.

A celebration of botanical art throughout history -€“ in pictures

A new book Plant: Exploring The Botanical World celebrates the beauty and diversity of plants from around the world across all media – from murals in ancient Greece to a Napoleonic-era rose print and cutting-edge scans (…)

Source: www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2016/oct/10/a-celebration-of-botanical-art-throughout-history-in-pictures

 

Unfortunately, it was only published after all work on my Botanist had come to an end – for botanical illustrations were an inexhaustible source of inspiration while I was working on this project.

And the Buddha’s Hand Fruit featured in the photo gallery of The Guardian even has an appearance in the novel.

Buddha’s hand – Wikipedia

Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, or the fingered citron, is an unusually shaped citron variety whose fruit is segmented into finger-like sections, resembling a human hand. It is called Buddha’s hand in Chinese  (…)

Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddha’s_hand

 

A kind of magic of its own: Phaidon’s book trailer.

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Mesmerizing Colors

During my research for The Sky Above Darjeeling, I came across images of havelis – the mansions of wealthy merchants in Rajasthan. I was mesmerized by their colors, their splendor, and their magical atmosphere shaped my vision of the world of Mohan Tajid, of Winston and Sitara and of Ian’s past.

A fascination that was revived when I discovered this photo gallery of havelis on BBC Travel the other day.

The abandoned mansions of billionaires

While most of Shekhawati’s havelis have crumbled and remain abandoned, a small window into the world of these painted mansions is being preserved. (…)

Source: www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160311-a-crumbling-birthplace-of-billionaires

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Where the Story Begins

Is there anything as satisfying for a booklover as watching thousands of books returning to their shelves?

Unfortunately, the Rose Main Reading Room was closed due to renovations when I stayed in New York in October 2015.

That’s where I am with my new novel right now, by the way – the New York Public Library is the starting point of a scavenger hunt encompassing two continents and several centuries that will take place at my desk over the next few months.

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